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"Bob" is a divorced dad of a 5 year old boy, "Tom". Tom lives with his mother and also spends a lot of time with his grandma and great grandmother. Both Bob and his ex-wife work full-time and he only gets to see his son a couple of times a week. He usually keeps him every Saturday.

About a month ago, Bob decided to get a puppy (partly for his son and partly for himself). The puppy is a very cute, male Bluenose Pitbull. A couple of weeks later he also moved to a new apartment (bigger) hoping for his son to have his own room and feel more comfortable.

Bob had been looking forward to spending time with Tom at his new apartment this weekend. However, things didn't go so well.

At some point the puppy barked at Tom because he wanted to play and Tom started crying. Bob scolded the puppy a few times and the crying stopped temporarily. Bob tried to comfort Tom by explaining that this is how puppies talk but Tom was inconsolable and had apparently peed his pants. He didn't want to eat his food and insisted his dad took him home.

Long story short, Bob's weekend was a disaster, leaving him hopeless and overwhelmed. At some point he thought of getting rid of the puppy.

Currently, Bob needs some alone time and not to have to see Tom for a few weeks. According to Bob, Tom is being raised in an environment, where both the grandma and the great grandmother are too fearful in general and the mom is overprotective.

Bob doesn't want to give the puppy for adoption but at the same time wants to make Tom feel at home in his new apartment without constantly feeling so afraid and wanting to go home to his mom.

Clarification:

Bob needs some alone time to reevaluate his life, which seems out of balance at the moment, and think how to handle his son's fear of dogs and caring for a puppy. The puppy seems to need a lot of attention as well. He's only 4 months and keeps eating twigs, leaves and rocks when out on a walk. He rushes the puppy to the vet every time he throws up twigs or leaves and is afraid of the puppy dying. On top of that, he knows he can't spend enough time with his son and feels he can't influence his upbringing the way he would like to so enjoying the time he does get to spend with his son is really important.

Question

How can Bob help his son overcome his fear of dogs so that he feels comfortable spending time with his dad and staying over at his place?

  • Is it possible to spend some time with puppy, Bob, Tom, and mom/grandmother in a neutral location (e.g. at a park, where Puppy can run around)? Depending on how Bob and the mother get along, and/or problematic schedules, this may not be feasible. – Acire Nov 19 '17 at 20:15
  • Bob has taken the puppy out for a walk or a run when Tom is visiting. The problem is when both puppy and Tom are in the apartment together and Bob would like his son to be able to stay with him on weekends without "freaking out" so much about the puppy. – Tycho's Nose Nov 19 '17 at 20:19
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    I was more trying to think of settings where Tom could feel like he was in a safer space and have some time to get used to the puppy. – Acire Nov 19 '17 at 22:27
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    Did Bob read or otherwise educate himself about the needs and habits of puppies before acquiring the puppy in the question? A 4mo pitbull is not unlike an exuberant 5yo, but with larger teeth. If Tom grows up in a very protected way when not with Bob, I can see why he might be afraid. – Stephie Nov 20 '17 at 5:23
  • @Erica I know they have tried that. There aren't many dog parks where Bob lives but Bob, his ex-wife and their son have been together with the puppy and the mom herself seemed to not feel as comfortable around the dog. – Tycho's Nose Nov 20 '17 at 7:00
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We adopted my son when he was four and a half years old, from China. He was terrified of animals. He reportedly ran, screaming, from the room at a birthday party, when a kitten entered the room. We have a video of his first time in snow, in our front yard. He is helping his daddy roll a ball for a snowman and a golden retriever approaches. Tail wagging, sauntering, not aggressive or too pushy. My son catches sight of him across the street, lets out a scream and, quite literally, climbs up his father's back like a little monkey.

Then my husband brought home a German Shepherd puppy. Predictably, my son was terrified and wanted nothing to do with the puppy. However, by the time the puppy had grown into a 90 pound dog, our son adored him. He wanted the dog to sleep with him, he wrestled her on the stairs and it didn't frighten him when she ripped his pants or mock-growled.

It was the same way with cats. The cats always curl up with him at night, now. He likes having them sleep with him.

He's still not comfortable with animals in general, but mandatory exposure was the key to getting him used to them. Our dog died a couple of years ago. He cried for days, and he badly wants us to get another puppy.

In the beginning, we made it a very low key thing. (Hey, let's take a walk to get ice cream, can you get the puppy's leash for me?) (Let's practice teaching her to sit, say "sit!" "Look, she's doing what you told her, she's being a good girl, let's give her a treat)

Here is the advice I would give Bob.

Don't put Tom in a situation where he could get nipped (no rough-housing, don't have him feed the puppy by hand) or expect him to volunteer to walk the puppy or play with him. Just keep him involved, in non-threatening ways.

Have him throw the ball for the puppy. Have him put food in the dog dish (make sure the pup is either sitting or is otherwise restrained, don't let him rush the dish) and water. Helping to care for the pup's need will make him feel more responsible and positive toward the pup.

Teach him to make the puppy obey. That will make him feel more in control of the relationship. Knowing that he can say "Sit!" and the pup will do so, will make him less afraid.

Don't forget to reward the boy for overcoming his fear, and for "helping" you take care of the the pup. Make outings with the pup fun. Go to ice cream, or McDonald's or someplace Tom loves. Make caring for the pup a "job" that he can earn an allowance for. Associating positive things with the pup will cause his attitude to become more positive.

Try to get his mother and grandmother's assistance, if you can. Hopefully they don't want their son to go through life being afraid of animals. This can result in ridicule from his peers, and robs him of the many emotional benefits that pets provide. If you want to know more about that, to bring up with his mother and grandmother, go to the internet and educate yourself. There's a lot of good material there, I'm sure.

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    Thank you for sharing this about your son :) You give some good advice here. Reading both answers made me think that Bob needs to be a lot more patient than he is with both the puppy and his son. You can't really raise a child or an animal without patience, can you? – Tycho's Nose Nov 22 '17 at 9:50
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Bob and Tom should both take the dog to training classes (if Tom wouldn't be too scared of other dogs there and barking). Tom may be a bit young, but in theory it would help him learn about "controlling" the dog (sit, stay, down, etc) and help him learn that "scary" things are just the dog doing what dogs do.

A friend of mine has a large older (calm) dog and the friends of her children will often come over and play. One of them was PETRIFIED of dogs and would not come NEAR the dog and scream/cry when the dog walked near HIM. My friend told him that if he lifted his knee and held it out to the side, it would make the dog think he was peeing and keep the dog away. It didn't really have any affect on the dog, but it DID give him something to DO to feel more in control of the situation and now the kid is comfortable enough that the dog and him can walk past each other and he can pet the dog.

Something similar may help as well as figuring out WHAT exactly Tom is scared of:

  • The loud noise of the bark? Maybe he can "bark" back louder, or whisper quietly to "teach the dog to talk softly".
  • Scared of being bitten? Maybe the dog can wear a muzzle (or a "magic, no bite collar" AKA a normal collar with some sparkles or something) for a little while so Tom can get used to it. (But also explain that puppy teeth are sharp and "play bites" can sometimes hurt more than the dog intended)
  • Being jumped on? Give Tom something (safe) to climb on that the dog cannot jump onto so Tom can get out of the way, and/or teach Tom how to gently push the dog off and say "no". Ideally if Tom does avoid the dog this way, it should only be when Tom is very overwhelmed, or if the dog is overly excited. It should not be an "all the time" thing.

Tom should also be encouraged to (after asking "is your dog friendly" and receiving an affirmative answer) interact with other dogs at the park. Perhaps Bob could even ask around (via facebook perhaps?) if anyone has a SMALL, mature, calm dog that Tom can play with to get used to. Puppies run and jump and bark. older dogs who are calm and fully trained can sit still and let Tom come to them. It might take several sessions however, so don't expect this to be an instant fix.

During the summer I was trying to use my dog to get my landlord's child to overcome her fear of dogs and it was SLOW going. Mine is small, calm and super fluffy so she looks like a stuffed animal, but even when she so much as licks her nose or turns her head it frightens the little girl. After a few times though she was brave enough to at least come within a foot of my dog despite not being willing to touch it. Patience will be really important.

Perhaps Bob can line up a friend to babysit the dog on the weekends for a little while and gradually increase the amount of time Tom and the puppy spend together.

It should go without saying that Bob NEEDS to train that dog. If nothing else, for the dog's sake. It should NOT be eating leaves and rocks and junk. "Leave it", "no", "stay", "come", "down/off" are all fundamental things a dog needs to know for me to consider it a polite dog. Since it is a "bully" breed and people are weird about them, this goes double. That dog (no dog really) should NOT be jumping on people.

  • Thanks for your advice. About the last paragraph, Bob does know he needs to train the dog and has bought several books. He is strict with the dog and I know the dog will learn but it takes time. However, he insists that nobody else orders the dog. I used to own a dog so when the puppy tried to jump on me, I corrected him but Bob didn't like that claiming that "the dog should only obey the owner and I should be the only one giving him orders...". – Tycho's Nose Nov 22 '17 at 9:45
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    This could be a problem. Does this "nobody but me" rule extend to his son as well? If he is unwilling to allow his son to control the puppy before it is trained, or to allow him to participate in the training process, his son is much less likely to invest in the dog and it makes it more unlikely that Tom will ever be entirely comfortable around the dog. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Nov 22 '17 at 16:48
  • One comment I will make on the third bullet point...I think it is far preferable to teach Tom to control the object of his fear than to give him a "safe place". When you teach a child how to be "safe" from something, you are teaching him that the something is to be feared. In the case of traffic, hazardous chemicals, strangers...yes...fear is healthy. But a puppy shouldn't be something a child is taught to be afraid of. Unfortunately, it sounds like Tom's mother and grandmother have already done so, but better to counter this with a healthier attitude. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Nov 22 '17 at 17:00
  • @FrancineDeGroodTaylor - yes and no. That part came from experience. My sister was adopted when both of us were around 6yo and initially she was scared of our dog and would run screaming to stand on the back of the couch when the dog was excited and barking when people came over or came home. That phase lasted... perhaps 6 months? This was only when the dog was overly excited though. I'll edit. – BunnyKnitter Nov 22 '17 at 17:46
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    @Tycho'sNose If Bob wants Tom and the dog to get along, Tom should have a hand in training. imo it should be "our dog" not "my dog". It should be the "family dog" and it should obey all members of the family. Dogs can be taught later to ignore people but at the start if it listened to Tom it may really help him feel comfortable around it. (note, I'm not saying that Bob should later teach the dog to ignore Tom - I mean other people, random kids and the playground, etc) – BunnyKnitter Nov 22 '17 at 17:49
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A pup is likely a bit much, especially a very high energy breed such as a pit bull.

I recommend dealing with older dogs. Much less likely to get excited and knock the boy down. In general the retrievers and herding dogs are more laid back than the hunting dogs and varmint dogs (terriers, dachshunds)

Older lab, golden retriever, border collie, siberian husky.

Avoid tiny dogs. Not sure why but the incidence of noisy aggression seems to be much more common in them.

Look for ones that are well below knee height (which is still pretty big for a kid)

A couple of sessions with dogs like this will do a lot.

I did this with a toddler once. I just sat on the ground and played with my border collie while the toddler stood behind her mom. Eventually curiosity got the better of her, and she came forward.

"you can pet her too. he's very gentle. Don't be surprised if he licks your hand."

It took about 5 minutes to work up the courage. 10 minutes later she was hugging the dog.

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